If there’s one characteristic that accurately describes most photography enthusiasts it’s the lust for new gear. Camera lust, lens lust, accessory lust…it runs the gamut. Most amateur photographers spend copious time daydreaming about that next great piece of equipment. And to some extent, there’s nothing wrong with that (assuming they don’t mortgage their homes to obtain it). After all, new gear can be a lot of fun.
But there is a problem with much of this gear gaping: many of the gapers are doe-eyed over the latest and greatest piece of equipment because they’re under the impression that obtaining that new camera body or lens is going to make them better photographers. And that, sadly, is rarely if ever the case. New photographic equipment can, in some instances, lead to better photographs but it very seldom will make you a better photographer. At first blush, that may sound contradictory, but it isn’t. Allow me to illustrate.
When I say that new equipment can produce better photos, I’m speaking largely of technical quality and the ability to leverage opportunity. For instance, newer camera sensors are less noisy than older ones; some lenses are sharper than others. An image produced with a higher megapixel camera can, all other things being equal, yield better large prints, than an image from a lower megapixel alternative. A camera-lens combination with a faster frame rate and autofocus acquisition may give the action photographer a better chance of obtaining a usable image from a high speed sequence than a less robust set of gear. And so on.
Equipment does matter. Every time I hear someone say something about Ansel Adams being able to create better images with a pinhole camera than most photographers can obtain with the best current gear, I cringe. These people are missing the point. Ansel Adams would be a lot happier with the images he shot with the best gear than he would with the material generated from a pinhole camera. But the point that these folks are trying to make, in a rather hyperbolic and irrational way, is that the equipment doesn’t make the photographer, and that point I agree with.
Photography, at its most fundamental level, is about seeing. It’s about your ability to translate your vision to a two-dimensional medium. Your gear is your toolset for translating that vision. More capable equipment may make it easier to translate your vision, in the sense that a better set of physical tools may make it easier for a woodworker to build higher quality furniture. But it will not—a few aberrant possibilities aside—improve your vision all by itself. (An exception to the rule might include something like an ultrawide angle lens opening up entirely new ways of looking at the world, thereby broadening one’s art.)
Personally, I haven’t purchased a new piece of photographic equipment since late 2008 (with the exception of a new polarizing filter, which I bought because my old one literally fell apart). And yet, I have no doubt I have become a better photographer over that time. But new equipment had nothing to do with it. Time in the field, time spent musing over how well I seemed to be expressing myself visually and what I could do to improve that expression, time spent studying compositional considerations…to the extent I’ve improved, these are the reasons why.
At the moment, I’m eying the possibility of purchasing the new Nikon D800E camera at some point this year. But I don’t have any illusions about it improving my photography. I believe—with good reason—that it will better enable me to make high quality enlargements. But it won’t make me a better photographer; of that I’m sure. My vision, my ability to see…these things won’t be any better with the D800E than they would be with my current camera (the D700).
If you’re dissatisfied with your photography, ask yourself—honestly—why that is. What’s wrong with your images? If you came up with something other than a technical shortcoming or limitation with your current equipment, you might want to work harder at becoming more proficient with what you already have. (There’s a saying in photography: most cameras are better than most photographers.)
So, don’t let me dampen your enthusiasm for new gear—as long as you’re drooling over that shiny new equipment for a good, actionable, tangible reason. But if you’re pondering that purchase because you think it’s going to make you a better photographer, think twice. In that instance, keep your wallet in your pocket and concentrate on your artistic vision by making the most out of the equipment you already possess.
Thursday Tips is written by Kerry Mark Leibowitz, a guest blogger on 1001 Scribbles, and appears every other Thursday. To read more of his thoughts on photography, please visit his blog: Lightscapes Nature Photography.